On Demolition

Something happened to my family at the beginning of February that is hard for me to get over even now.

You may recall that I wrote about my grandmother’s house, built in the 1860s out of salvaged wood, salt-cured and tough as granite, which survived every major hurricane of the twentieth century, even though others younger than it fell.

Well, it doesn’t stand up so well to bulldozers.

I found this truth out the hard way. I was driving along East Bay Street one morning, when I saw a backhoe in a most peculiar place — our family property where my father and his family had been born. Turns out the contractor was taking down the wrong house. He was taking down our grandmother’s house at 672 Bay.

It was a costly mistake. There was one bright spark about it, though — no one was in the house at the time.

The same can’t be said for a certain house in First Terrace, Centreville.

A similar thing happened to it, more or less. A contractor with a backhoe drove in the yard one day and bulldozed the house down to the ground. By mistake. But in this case, someone was living there.

Thank heaven he wasn’t at home when it happened. According to the grapevine, he was at work. But it was his home, and someone flattened it, by mistake.

Now the point of this article isn’t that these things happened, or that they happened because of gross negligence, or that it is supremely unlikely that that negligence will be corrected, or that the rightful owners of these homes will ever be able to collect what is rightfully theirs; when people make mistakes — unless they’re caught — they are extremely adept at disappearing into nowhere.

The point of it is that they happen every day. And there are laws in place to stop them happening. To demolish a building you need an order. When that order is obtained, it must be displayed. Ideally, no contractor should proceed with any demolition in the absence of such an order. Moreover, my grandmother’s house was listed as a historical building, and such buildings may not be demolished; no order could be got for it. But it came down anyway.

We are, you see, very adept at doing things against which there are laws. What’s more, we are adept at getting away with them. In the case of the demolition of old homes, there is sometimes an element of collusion on the authorities’ part that allows people to act with impunity. After all, why should we protect old things that make the country look bad? If we can’t destroy them outright, at least we can ignore their tacit destruction. It’s called turning a blind eye, being in the right place at the wrong time. And more and more of our patrimony, of our heritage, is being demolished as a result.

Now for many people, perhaps most of us, this is not a big deal at all. Why should people be concerned about ugly old buildings anyway? Why should we expend good money fixing them up when we could take that money and invest them in new, up-to-date buildings that look like they could be anywhere in the first world?

Well, it’s this. Ours is a society whose history is written in our memories, on our landscape, and not on paper. Our forefathers, white, black and in between, gained no benefit from excessive book-learning. There was no space in Bahamian society for people who wasted valuable time in writing down ideas and events; the challenge to survive was too great. And so our history is largely written on the land. Each old house, no matter how modest, is a book. The ways in which our ancestors shaped the wood is a lesson to us about how we used to survive, back in the days before we were American clones. The same is true for the way in which they laid shingle and thatch, the way they burned shells for lime, the way in which they made tabby for our own Bahamian plaster. Our identity lies in what we have created over the years, and not in what has been inscribed in history texts. Every old thing that we destroy now is a part of us.

And the men who wrote their existence in wood and stone and house did not intend to be forgotten. They built their homes to last, and expected their posterity to last with them. When my cousin and I looked at the wood we were able to salvage from the ruins of 672 Bay, we found out that it doesn’t matter how bad an old house looks. The frame and the planking of the house, made of good old Abaco pine and Bahamian red cedar, were as strong as, or stronger than, almost any new wood that can be bought today. And we found out, too, that the men who built that house had made their mark, inscribing their initials on the corners of the planks before putting them in place. To disrespect them, to roll over their work in machines that turn hard pine into mulch, to remove them so completely from our memories and our futures, is to kill ourselves.

You see, it doesn’t matter that we have forgotten how to read the lives and the work of our forefathers in the beams and panelling of old buildings. Our ignorance should not allow us to destroy what we do not know we have. Each demolition is a blow against our identity, a removal of a part of us. We no longer know how to build houses without nails, but our forefathers knew. By preserving their work for our children, we preserve the hope that our children may relearn the knowledge and the skills that made us who we are.